Book Review: 80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald

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By Jonathan Gault
Fall 2014

The hypothesis presented in Matt Fitzgerald‘s recently-released 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster By Training Slower is not unique: perform around 80 percent of your training at low intensity and the remaining 20 percent at moderate to high intensity. The specifics — what kind of workouts to run, how “low intensity” is defined — can change, but Fitzgerald’s proposal of an 80/20 training breakdown has been incorporated, knowingly or unknowingly, into many successful training systems around the globe.

What is unique about 80/20 Running is the legwork Fitzgerald, author of training books such as Brain Training for Runners and Racing Weight puts into it. 80/20 training is not a gimmick; it’s the core principle in a carefully-structured training plan that Fitzgerald lays out, chapter by chapter. He writes clearly about not only how to implement that training plan, but also how 80/20 training came to be accepted and, most importantly, why scientifically it works.

Some of the terms, such as “relaxed smooth ease” or “respiratory compensation threshold” may be unfamiliar even to veteran runners, but Fitzgerald explains them in such a way that even a novice can understand their significance. The result is a well-crafted argument with a multitude of evidence behind it that in turn supplies readers with confidence should they choose to adopt an 80/20 training plan, because they know exactly how they are benefiting from it.

Fitzgerald defines low intensity as running done below ventilatory threshold (slow enough to carry on a conversation) and high intensity as running done above the respiratory compensation threshold (the point where hyperventilation, or rapid, deep breathing occurs). Moderate intensity running, as you might guess, occupies the region between low and high intensity running. Fitzgerald argues that, in general, runners don’t run nearly enough at low intensity — what they refer to as easy runs are frequently conducted at moderate intensity. By conducting easy runs at a truly low intensity, he says, runners can reap multiple benefits, most stemming from the fact that 80/20 training allows runners to run more volume than in a 50/50 system.

First, and most obviously, more volume improves aerobic capacity, which results in gains in sustainability of speed (the ability to maintain the same pace for longer distances). However, Fitzgerald takes issue with the idea that there is no limit to how much a runner can increase their aerobic capacity. For veteran runners — he cites Paula Radcliffe as an example — Fitzgerald argues that “long-term improvements in fatigue resistance come largely from a source other than increased aerobic capacity.” Fitzgerald explains that Radcliffe’s VO2 max peaked at age 17, when she ran 9:23 for 3,000 meters, but her performance peaked at age 29, when she ran a world-record of 2:15:25 for the marathon. His point is that Radcliffe improved through other means than aerobic development.

Fitzgerald posits that Radcliffe’s improvements were achieved largely through mental gains and better running economy, both of which were the result of high mileage. The latter might come as a surprise, given her famously herky-jerky running motion, but Fitzgerald argues that form is overrated and that it is more important to run with minimal mental effort.

I won’t go into the science — if you want all the details, buy the book — but those gains in mental fitness and running economy are both the product of the high-mileage training system Fitzgerald says Radcliffe employed. As Fitzgerald writes, “Low-intensity, high-volume training teaches the mind to accept that it might as well make peace with its suffering because it won’t end soon.”

Indeed, one of the proposed titles for the book was High Mileage Manifesto, and high mileage is at the center of most of the improvements 80/20 training produces. Ostensibly, Fitzgerald may be arguing for 80/20 training, but in reality 80/20 training is just a means to an end, and the end is high mileage. Because so much of the running is done at low intensity in Fitzgerald’s system, that allows runners to run higher volume without breaking down. That increased volume is responsible for almost all of the gains produced by an 80/20 system.

Again, this concept isn’t new. What may be new for many readers is to see the scientific evidence in support of lots of relaxed running. It would have been nice if this book had existed from late 198os to the late 1990s, during the dark days of American distance running. Back then, quality, not quantity, was the rage and performances dropped like a brick. From 1992 to 1994, there were a grand total of two HS boys under 9:00 (1 in 1992, 0 in 1993, 1 in 1994). Now DIII schools are getting two sub-9 recruits. Those already familiar with the scientific benefits of high-mileage training might not need to read it – 80/20 Running is geared toward more novice runners than a former D-I runner like myself – but a little affirmation can be good for everyone. And there’s something for everyone here.

Chapters 8 through 11 provide detailed training plans for races from 5K to the marathon, and Fitzgerald even throws in a cross-training guide in Chapter 12. But Chapter 2, which deals with the history of training theory and how 80/20 training became popular, is fascinating for any fan of the sport, as Fitzgerald traces evolution of accepted best training philosophies from Emil Zátopek to Arthur Lydiard to Bill Squires of the Greater Boston Track Club. It certainly was my favorite chapter. The section on Zátopek is especially enlightening, detailing brutal interval training such as twice-daily sessions of 50x400m (anyone more interested in Zátopek’s routines may want to check out Zá-to-pek! Zá-to-pek! Zá-to-pek! by Bob Phillips, which Fitzgerald drew on as a resource).

With Lydiard, Fitzgerald shares how Lydiard wrote an article for Sports Illustrated in 1962 entitled “Why I Prescribe Marathons for Milers”. Lydiard’s high-mileage training was viewed as radical at the time. In fact, Lydiard opened the piece by writing, “My training system is not the superhuman thing it’s made out to be.” But the results ended up speaking for themselves and as a result more people started to imitate Lydiard. The end result of that copycat process is the reason why nothing in Fitzgerald’s book comes across as a new revelation. There are none left. As Fitzgerald himself wrote:

“Training methods continue to evolve in the sport of running, but today’s innovators are working at the margins, tinkering with different methods of incorporating cross-training, altitude training, and other such practices into their regimens…..Mo Farah‘s training in the second decade of the twenty-first century is not much different from Bill Rodgers‘ training in the 1970s. Rodgers ran upward of 120 miles per week, and Farah runs up to that amount. Rodgers did about 80 percent of his running at low intensity, and Farah does the same.”

Fitzgerald’s book may be the final step in the copycat process. He’s trying to take Lydiard revolution to the massses. He explains exactly how 80/20 training and high mileage improve fitness and running ability. If you’re interested in the science behind high mileage, you’ll enjoy 80/20 Running. If you don’t care how the sausage gets made, this is not the book for you.

Discuss this book in the forum: MB: Matt Fitzgerald’s new book 80/20 Running – Rojo what can u tell us about this book since you wrote the foreward. Support LetsRun by purchasing the book via the link below.

Note: co-founder Robert Johnson wrote the foreword to this book which he enjoyed reading. However, errors were made in the editing process. Robert wants it known that he never approved the final draft of the foreword, never called the book “truly groundbreaking” and never offered a guarantee that “you will be completely convinced.” Given that he believes he was coached by the best coach in the country, John Kellogg, he also most definitely didn’t write, “I only wish this book had existed when I had been competing.” Mr. Kellogg was one of the few in the 1980s/90s who never forgot what Lydiard taught the world and was one of the leading disciples of spreading the high mileage message once the Internet took off. Johnson wanted to write the foreward to this book as it supports what he’d always been taught about training by Mr. Kellogg.

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